As China wins one battle with air pollution, it accidentally starts another

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China has made great progress over the last few years to reduce air pollution levels. Fine particulate matter (PM 2.5) has been reduced by an incredible 40%. However, progress in one area has inadvertently caused problems in another. This reduction in particulate matter has led to a dramatic increase in ground level ozone.

Prior to the cleanup, the molecules needed to produce ground level ozone were often absorbed by particulate matter. Take away the particulate matter and those molecules are free to team up with Oxides of Nitrogen and VOC’s, to produce higher levels of ozone than ever before.

The task ahead to reduce indoor VOC’s and outdoor Oxides of Nitrogen will be challenging. VOC’s or ‘Volatile Organic Compounds’ are literally everywhere. Inside homes, offices, even schools. They are produced by building materials such as paint, flooring and furnishings. Everyday personal care products like deodorants and perfumes also create VOC’s. And common household cleaning products can emit VOC’s too.

The term ‘Oxides of Nitrogen’ includes several types of gases, including Nitric Oxide (NO) and Nitrogen Dioxide (NO2). Mainly outdoor pollutants, they are produced by vehicles, coal and oil power plants.

Exposure to high levels of VOC’s and pollution from cars and industry can cause various health problems. VOC’s have been linked to ear, nose and throat irritation, frequent headaches and feelings of nausea, as well as more serious conditions such as liver and kidney damage. Exposure to VOC’s can also damage the central nervous system and certain types of VOC’s, such as formaldehyde, have been linked to cancer.

Outdoor pollutants like ground level ozone and pollutants from vehicles and industry are just as lethal. Exposure to air pollution is proven to cause lung disease, heart attacks and strokes, Alzheimer’s, premature aging, low birth weight, premature birth, birth defects, cot death, miscarriages, autism, Parkinson’s disease, schizophrenia, lung cancer, diabetes. In short, air pollution, whether it’s in our homes or on the streets, affects every aspect of our health.

There is no doubt that China has been hugely successful at reducing levels of PM 2.5 in a very short space of time. But that is just one part of a very large and complex problem. It is clear from this latest report there is still a long way to go.

If you’d like to read more on this, here’s the full study.